Ability, action, and causation: from pure ability to force

Abstract In this paper, we show that Greek distinguishes empirically ability as a precondition for action, and ability as initiating and sustaining force for action. In this latter case, the ability verb behaves like an action verb, and the sentence has the logical form of a causative structure φ CAUSE [BECOME ψ] (Dowty 1979). The distinction between ability as potential for action and ability as action itself has a venerable tradition that goes back to Aristotle, and is recently implied in a number of analyses (Mari and Martin 2007, 2009, Thomason 2005). We show first that the phenomenon is not just aspectual ( pace Bhatt 1999, Hacquard 2006, 2009, Pinon 2003): actualized ability emerges with the ability verb also with imperfective aspect and present tense. They key, we argue is causation, which triggers a shift from pure ability, to ability as force (in the sense of Copley and Harley 2010, i.e. as action initiating energy). In Greek, the action reading of the ability modal comes about in an apparent co-ordinate causative structure, where the two clauses are connected with conjunction ke ‘and’— a pattern that we find also in other languages, including English, at least with some action verbs such as try, allow . Our analysis implies a meaning of ability richer than mere possibility ( pace Hacquard); and, by capitalizing on the causative meaning and the presence of force in causative structures, our analysis enables a principled explanation of the shift to action-ability without positing ambiguity for the ability verb ( pace Bhatt 1999)
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